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S R Nathan, 'who always put country before self', dies

SINGAPORE — Sellapan Ramanathan, or S R Nathan, the protagonist in an unlikely but quintessential Singapore story of advancement who went from school dropout to the highest office in the land, died on Monday (Aug 22) from complications resulting from a stroke he suffered over two weeks ago. He was 92.

S R Nathan, 'who always put country before self', dies

Mr S R Nathan with his wife Madam Urmila Nandi and their grandchildren. In recent years, he had retreated more and more from the public eye, but he was a familiar face to early morning joggers and others at East Coast Park, where he went regularly for a morning walk. Photo: Mr Nathan's personal collection

SINGAPORE — Sellapan Ramanathan, or S R Nathan, the protagonist in an unlikely but quintessential Singapore story of advancement who went from school dropout to the highest office in the land, died on Monday (Aug 22) from complications resulting from a stroke he suffered over two weeks ago. He was 92.

Announcing his death, the Prime Minister’s Office said Mr Nathan passed away peacefully at Singapore General Hospital at 9.48pm. 

Mr Nathan, who retired from public office after 12 years as Elected President — the longest-serving EP in Singapore’s history — will be accorded the nation’s highest honour in death, a state funeral. It will take place at 4pm on Friday.

Tributes poured in from other leaders on Monday night, as Singaporeans dealt with the loss of two of the titans of the Republic’s formative period in just over a year — founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s death on March 23 last year had sent the nation into a state of grief. 

Reacting to news of Mr Nathan’s death, President Tony Tan said in a statement on Facebook: “Mary and I are deeply saddened by the passing of former President S R Nathan.” 

“As President of Singapore, Mr Nathan championed social causes by initiating the President’s Challenge in 2000. The President’s Challenge gained much support from the community and raised over S$100 million for more than 500 beneficiaries during Mr Nathan’s two terms of office,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Mrs Nathan and Mr Nathan’s family during this time of mourning.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a Facebook post that Mr Nathan had passed away peacefully, surrounded by family and loved ones.

“Mr Nathan’s life is an inspiration to us all. His was a story of how a young boy strove to triumph over his circumstances and make a contribution to society. He held many public service posts, and occupied the highest office in the land, said Mr Lee, calling him “a true son of Singapore”. 

In Mr Nathan, many Singaporeans saw, first-hand, the meritocratic ideals that are a pillar of the country. As a young boy, there was little inkling of Mr Nathan’s rise to prominence in his childhood and early career. Though born into a well-to-do household, family issues, including the suicide of his father, saw him get kicked out of school twice by the time he was 16, and he eventually ran away from home.

However, as he put it in his 2011 memoir, An Unexpected Journey, Mr Nathan possessed certain traits that would see him through a hard early life and vault him into prominence — strong work ethic, determination and sense of duty.

These traits were evident in his early jobs as an office errand boy, a translator for a Japanese officer during World War II, and a temporary clerk with the Johor state government.

It was at this job that Mr Nathan first displayed the negotiating skills that would set him apart in later years — he made a foray into union work when he became involved in the Johore Civil Service Association’s fight for fairer pay for local government employees.

How did he wind up in Singapore? After completing his diploma in social studies with distinction at the University of Malaya, he entered the Singapore public service as a medical worker in 1955, and took up a posting with the seafarers union a year later. As a seamen’s welfare officer, he helped seafarers to resolve their grievances, such as wrongful discharge, unpaid wages or bad treatment. During his stint, the young Mr Nathan built a reputation for being willing to go above and beyond to help the seafarers, and even earned the confidence of employers in the shipping companies that he had to negotiate with.

In the early 1960s, Mr Nathan was seconded to set up the labour research unit of the labour movement, where he found himself in the frontline as a trade unionist. At a time when strikes and riots were rife, Mr Nathan managed to find a way to effectively handle the unions during complicated collective bargaining negotiations and major industrial disputes.

FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DOMESTIC CONCERNS

His career in public service entered a new phase four months after Singapore gained independence in 1965, when he was sent to the newly-created Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be its assistant secretary at the age of 41.

As one who had no first-hand knowledge about the world of diplomacy, Mr Nathan relied on books and press clippings to learn about how established foreign ministries operated. He would later accompany then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on a world tour to countries as far-flung as Zambia, Sri Lanka and Egypt.

In 1974, when Mr Nathan was security and intelligence chief at the Defence Ministry, after a short stint in Home Affairs, the infamous Laju Hijacking incident occurred on Singapore soil. Four terrorists from the Japanese Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had bombed the Shell oil refinery complex on Pulau Bukom.

They took five crew members of the ferry Laju hostage, and he volunteered to accompany the hijackers to Kuwait as a guarantee of safe passage, in order to secure the civilian hostages’ release. When the Kuwaiti authorities refused to allow the terrorists’ plane to land, the skilled negotiator broke the impasse after a tense few hours.

Mr Nathan and his team returned to a hero’s welcome, and he received a National Day Award, the Meritorious Medal, later that year. 

Mr Nathan returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as first permanent secretary in 1978, before retiring from the Civil Service in 1982. 

However, instead of going into full retirement, Mr Nathan went on to serve as the executive chairman of the then Straits Times Press. 

His appointment came at a time when Mr Nathan, in his memoirs, noted that the Government was “unhappy with The Straits Times because of a sense that the paper was deliberately portraying the Government and its social and other policies in a negative light, without any real basis”.

Many foreign media reports interpreted Mr Nathan’s posting to The Straits Times as a move on the Government’s part to restrict press freedom — a view shared by local editors and journalists. Some journalists even took to wearing black arm bands to signal their “mourning” of his arrival.

However, by the time he left The Straits Times in 1988 after six years of mediating between the Government and the newspaper  Mr Nathan had earned the respect of many journalists, not just for guiding them but sometimes even defending them from the Government.

IN THE HOT SEATS

His appointment to politically-sensitive positions continued when he was posted back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In 1988, Mr Nathan was made the High Commissioner to Malaysia to improve relations between the two neighbours, even as old suspicions relating to espionage and spying activities continued to linger.

However, it was during his stint as Ambassador to the United States that Nathan had his work cut out for him, when he had to defend Singapore’s position amid American public criticism and even an appeal by then-President Bill Clinton over the caning of Fay in 1994.

During a live television appearance with talk show host Larry King, Mr Nathan stood firm in presenting Singapore’s case that the law should take its course when a crime had been committed, and Singapore should not be seen as giving special treatment to any particular foreign national. 

Following his return to Singapore from Washington in 1996, Mr Nathan had retirement in his sight, but then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew had another plan for him to run for the Elected Presidency.

In 1999, Mr Nathan was sworn into office and went on to become Singapore’s longest-serving president for two terms, unopposed. 

At the height of the global financial crisis in 2009, Nathan, as President, gave the Government permission to draw S$4.9 billion from the reserves to fund schemes to save jobs and ease credit for businesses. 

This was the first time that the Government had sought the President’s approval to draw on past reserves.

Not one to believe that the President should be a “mere courtier” to the Government as he described it in his memoirs — Mr Nathan saw the role as one that is able to contribute, sometimes critically, to policy deliberations for the nation as a whole, while keeping a good working relationship with the Government.

THE PEOPLE’S PRESIDENT

During his 12 years’ as Singapore’s head of state, Mr Nathan did not believe in being put on pedestal, far removed from his fellow citizens. Instead, he wanted to bring the presidency closer to the people through various ways, such as through the President’s Challenge.

As an umbrella fund-raising programme that consolidated donations for various charities, it has raised over $160 million since its inception in 2000.

The man, whose long and illustrious career had touched the lives and hearts of many fellow Singaporeans, would probably have not made it this far without the support of the love of his life, his wife, Urmila (Umi) Nandey.

When the young Mr Nathan decided to get a university degree, it was not just about improving his career propects  it was also aimed at preparing a better life for his future wife. Nathan spent 16 years courting Umi — including two years of maintaining a long-distance relationship — before finally marrying her in 1958.

By his side ever since, Mrs Nathan recalled that there was never a time when her husband was not dressed for the office, with a briefcase in hand.

“If anyone had ever suggested that one day my husband would be president, I would have responded with utter disbelief. … And the day he was appointed (as president), was the proudest day of my life,” she wrote in a page-long contribution to his memoirs.

“I hope Singaporeans will remember my husband as a self-made man. He started out with nothing… There is a lesson in his story for all young people, however competitive the world may seem,” Mrs Nathan added.

In recent years, he had retreated more and more into the public eye, but he was a familiar face to early morning joggers and others at East Coast Park, where he went regularly for a morning walk.

After Mr Lee Kuan Yew died last year, Mr Nathan penned a heartfelt letter paying tribute the founding Prime Minister, calling him Singapore’s “most illustrious son”. “He helped us to stand up and fight back, those disruptive forces, despite the overwhelming strength with which they sought to destroy our society. We will miss this giant of a man,” he said. 

He suffered a stroke in April last year, and spent more than two weeks in hospital. Nearly two months later, he made a public appearance at a Singapore National Stroke Association event as the guest of honour. 

Little was heard until he suffered a stroke earlier this month, his second in two years. Among his last high-profile visitors was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who said Mr Nathan was gravely ill but stable.

There would be one last high-profile visitor after that — Olympic champion Joseph Schooling, who visited him just five days ago on Aug 17. 

He leaves behind his wife Umi, 87, son Osith, daughter Juthika, and three grandchildren.

 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story wrongly reported that former President Nathan retired after six years as Elected President. Mr Nathan retired from public office after 12 years as EP. We are sorry for the error. 

 

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